May 26, 2024

DRM as Folding Chair

Frank Field offers an interesting analogy:

DRM is a folding chair – specifically, it’s one of those folding chairs that people use after shoveling out the snow from a parking space that they use to claim it after they drive away.

For those of you who don’t have to cope with snow, I know that sounds incredible (it was to me when I moved here from South Carolina), but this is a real problem in cities with limited parking and poor snow removal. People who shovel out their cars will have a ratty old folding chair or an old street cone or, if they’re feeling really aggressive, an old kid’s toy that they will plant squarely in the middle of the shoveled-out parking space. This object “marks” the spot, and everyone knows what it means – this is my spot: park here and you will suffer the consequences.

This struck me, in part, because it echoes an example I like to use. When teaching about the theory of property, I start with a class discussion about whether there should be a property right in shoveled-out parking spaces. It’s a helpful example because everybody understands it, few people have a predisposition one way or the other, and it exposes most of the tradeoffs involved in creating a new form of property.

As Frank describes it, “ownership” of a Cambridge parking space is effected not by any legal right but by the threat that noncompliant cars will be vandalized. This is a key distinction. Typically, some of my students end up endorsing a limited property right in shoveled-out parking spaces, but my guess is that they would feel differently about a system created by private decree and “enforced” by vandalism.

This is where the analogy to DRM gets complicated. DRM systems don’t trash the computers of noncompliant users, so they don’t rely on the same kind of intimidation that Frank’s folding-chair owners use.

But Frank’s analogy does work very nicely in one dimension. DRM developers, like Cambridge folding-chair owners, are trying to establish a social norm that people should keep out of the territory they claim. Such claims should be evaluated on their merits, and not just taken for granted.


  1. It seems to me that one huge difference bewteen parking spaces and so-called intellectual property — which is what DRM tries to protect — is that if I take a parking space, you can’t have it. But if I copy an MP3, you can still make your own copy. In this sense, shoveled parking spots are more like material property.

    [Better late than never, I hope!]

  2. Roland Schulz says

    Cypherpunks free market approach seems rather idealistic to me. What I see happening is that one corporation just buys out the rights to most of the parking spaces (aside from a few of people who don’t want to sell) and then has a monopoly on parking capability, with all the obvious problems for the consumer/parking space seeker. And indeed this seems to describe pretty well what already happened with the media industry. Transfering the situation of the artist in the current record industry business to the parking space owner, the latter would only be able to display the price of the parking space on the billboard/price advertising network by entering a lifelong contract with the monopolist, thereby signing away most of the profits, or even getting charged when the parking space isn’t used much.

    Also, lets not forget that the shovelled out parking spaces would usually be on public roads. So while we’re at it, since we support squatting parking spaces, why not support squatting empty houses, too, with an appropriate payment system based on market demands. Hey, now that sounds like a good idea to reduce the housing problems in the cities and rent overcharging 🙂 Count me in!

  3. Cypherpunk:

    In some cities parking spaces are already owned. In London some spaces cost over 100k GBP (~175k USD). Everyone hates it. The market cannot deal with parking shortages because the supply is too far behind the demand curve to allow any sense of sanity.

    Furthermore, few people argue that the net economic benefit is not there. This is true for both IP and parking. However, most people believe that the net social cost for a completely privatized parking system far outweighs the economic benefits. The point here is that the same should be true of IP.

  4. I don’t see why the limitation on time and space is so crucial. Let’s suppose that we let people own their parking spaces forever once they’ve shoveled them out, and consider the implications.

    The first is that the shoveling is not really that important. As time goes on, that event will pass farther and farther into the past. What really matters is the fact that parking spaces would be privately owned. They could be bought and sold, and people could set their own individual rental rates, or refuse to rent them at all.

    This would mean, as you drive along looking for a parking place, that empty spots would potentially vary in price, and some would be unavailable at any price. Spots would vary somewhat in quality, in terms of location convenience or perhaps size.

    In a way, this is not that different from what we have today in a city where parking meters are used. There is no inherent absurdity or contradiction in letting people own parking places and rent them out. Most cities have private parking garages which work this way, so we would just be extending the idea to the curb side.

    And there are actually economic advantages to this system. By letting the prices adjust from street to street and spot to spot, we can optimize utilization of spaces, so that people who have greater need for a particular space are willing to pay more for it. No city could afford to go through and survey each parking space to determine its optimum price, but the market will do so automatically. This system optimizes the total utilisation of the scarce resource of parking places, just as the market does in other areas.

    The problem with the idea is transaction costs. It will be difficult for the drivers to know how much they are going to be charged at each spot as they drive down the street. This will make it hard for them to make informed decisions about where to park, and so the hoped-for economic advantages are unlikely to materialize.

    But here is where technology can help. In a few years it may be very feasible to have low-level radio broadcasts which make parking price information available on a spot-by-spot basis via some kind of mobile WiFi. Simple software in the car can display the possible parking spots, color coded by price, and can even make recommendations about the best spot given the user’s desired destination and rules for price/distance tradeoffs. Even without the variable pricing, such a system would be desirable by alerting you to the availability of an empty parking space around the corner, so I think it’s likely that this kind of information will be part of the pervasive computing infrastructure. Given such a utility, variable parking prices based on market ownership of parking places will be economically efficient and a superior system over the free or flat-rate metered parking we have today.

    So yes, people should be able to own their shoveled-out parking spaces. And if they owned them forever, there would be a net economic benefit.

    And by the way, I believe the same thing is true of intellectual property as well. Eternal ownership would be the economically optimal solution, given that technology can reduce or eliminate transaction costs.

  5. Everyone has an equal ability to utilize their lawnchair to exercise control over a parking space. Few people have the ability to utilize their copyright to exercise control over their creative work in a way they helps them bring their work to market. If the playing field in the media industry were anywhere near as level as the lawnchair-parking system, DRM would largely be a non-issue because media consumers would respect the copyright of the producers the same way drivers respect the lawnchair-parking right of their peers.

  6. “strictly limited time” – Exactly!

    Parkingspace-right is what copyright should be. It is a monoply granted to the creator as a reward for performing work which would otherwise not be done, and crucially, said right is strictly constrained in both time and extent.

    That is, the parkingspace-right does not prevent someone from walking through the parking space on foot. Nor does the creator have rights for the next century. Nor are these rights then sold to mega-garages.

    Looked at that way, it’s downright laudable.

  7. Grant Gould says

    I think the crucial thing that makes parking space rights work is that they are of strictly limited time. Nearly everyone respects the shoveling-created property right the day after the snowstorm, but nobody does a week afterward (indeed, someone will just swipe the chair if it stays out for that long).

    Nobody would claim that folding-chair shoveling rights should be permanent, or even that they should last more than a few days. If only people were that sensible about DRM…

  8. De Soto’s book Mystery of Capital has some very nice stories about early real estate property rights in colonial America. These had all nice names: squatter’s rights (the right obtained by squatting on the land), corn rights (the right obtained by planting a crop of corn), hatchet rights (the rights obtained by marking a perimeter of trees with a hatchet).

    Shoveling rights?

  9. DRM systems don’t trash the computers of noncompliant users yet.

    Haven’t there been all those bills seeking to create a right of “self-help” for copyright holders? If DRM developers could figure out a technical way to do it (difficult, as you’re surely aware) and thought they could at least sort of avoid legal liability (note that care vandalism isn’t legal, but people do it) then they’d build destructive DRM in a heartbeat. There are already some attempts.